Fresno State senior free safety Derron Smith has some specific goals in mind this season: He wants to be able to show off his coverage skills more and play more man-to-man defense.
Smith (5-foot-11, 197 pounds) requested feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board after last season, and he told the Banning (Calif.) Record-Gazette that he was not projected to go in the first three rounds. Already leaning toward remaining in school, that sealed it.
Fresno State is glad he's back: Smith heads into the season considered one of the top three senior safeties in the nation, and NFL Media senior draft analyst Gil Brandt said last month that Smith has the potential to be a first-round pick in the 2015 draft.
Smith has 14 career interceptions, the most of any active player in the nation; he is coming off a season in which he had seven interceptions, six pass breakups, 87 tackles, four sacks and eight tackles for loss. Those stats show off an impressive skill set for a guy who received one FBS offer -- from Fresno State -- coming out of high school in Banning, Calif.
He was used more in run support last season and thrived.
"I actually enjoyed dropping down to the box," Smith told the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. "It's fun being in here. It's closer to the ball, closer to the action. I think it has helped elevate my game a bit showing I can do that."
He had an interception, which he returned for a TD, and a career-high 18 tackles in the Bulldogs' Las Vegas Bowl loss to USC. He and the Bulldogs meet USC again on Aug. 30 in the season opener for both teams. Smith will try to limit the damage done by USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and their matchup will be closely watched by scouts.
Smith wouldn't mind spending time this season playing nickelback or matching up against slot receivers; those tasks would enable him to show off his coverage skills. At the same time, "It's whatever's best for the team," he said.
Fresno State secondary coach Jordan Peterson told the Press-Enterprise that Smith's football IQ is what sets him apart.
"Derron is just so advanced in what we do from a coverage standpoint and a disguise standpoint, he basically coaches himself," Peterson said. "He understands the game and really knows what's going on. He's the QB of the defense. He gets us going back there and knows what the quarterback wants to see."
Peterson also said Smith's study habits are impressive.
"He always puts himself in position from a preparation standpoint that allows him to be successful in the game," he said. "All during the week, he's in his prep book looking at the scouting report for notes and tendencies."